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Harlem charter schools…coming to movie theaters everywhere

As the Sundance Film Festival kicks into high gear this afternoon, mingling among the movie stars and directors will be a New York education celebrity — the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Geoffrey Canada.

Canada is attending the Park City, Utah festival for today’s world premiere of “Waiting for Superman,” a new documentary directed by Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar in 2007 for helming the Al Gore climate change film “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Guggenheim’s film is one of two new documentaries that feature Harlem charter schools prominently and cast them in a glowing light. The other is “The Lottery,” which will be released in May and which follows a group of families seeking entrance into Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academies.

“Waiting for Superman” follows five children from around the country as they navigate the public schools system. None of them are Harlem Children’s Zone students, said an HCZ spokesman, Marty Lipp, but Canada offers commentary throughout the film. In an interview, Guggenheim calls Canada “perhaps the strongest voice” in the film.

Canada will also speak at the festival tomorrow on a panel called “Can’t Be Done!” The panel characterizes public education (along with poverty and global warming) as a problem conventional wisdom deems “too entrenched to remedy.” Canada will appear alongside Nobel laureate microcredit lender Muhammad Yunus and environmentalist Lester Brown to discuss how supposedly intractable problems can be solved.

Canada is a popular figure in the media, with observers like Anderson Cooper and David Brooks celebrating the Harlem Children’s Zone’s successes in boosting its Harlem students’ third grade test scores to above or beyond those of their suburban counterparts.  But some critics, including GothamSchools commentator Aaron Pallas, wonder if it’s perhaps too early to conclude that Canada has solved the problem of public education.

While the first official screening of the film is today (even Canada hasn’t seen it yet, Lipp said), it seems clear that Guggenheim is firmly in the Canada fan club. The director is pitching the film as being about education reform, but he’s using the term “reformer” with a very particular meaning, one that has been hotly debated on this site. A promotional description of the film describes its slant this way:

[E]mbracing the belief that good teachers make good schools, and ultimately questioning the role of unions in maintaining the status quo, Guggenheim offers hope by exploring innovative approaches taken by education reformers and charter schools that have—in reshaping the culture—refused to leave their students behind.

In addition to Canada, the film also features D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates and KIPP co-founders David Levin and Mike Feinberg. This group, along with Moskowitz, Chancellor Joel Klein and Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp, all advocate broadly for high stakes accountability for schools and teachers and often clash with teachers unions.

When “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, it was accompanied by a strong off-screen anti-global warming advocacy campaign, and it looks like “Waiting for Superman” will have an off-screen activism element as well. (There’s already an advocacy social media site set up for the film where highlighted news headlines include Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push to tie student test scores to teacher tenure.)

“Waiting for Superman” was the first Sundance film this year picked up for distribution by a studio and should hit theaters this fall.

Here’s an interview with Guggenheim, in which he predicts that Canada will be greeted as a “rock star” at Sundance: